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The Story of Crown Point Iron

Pehr (Peter) Kalm, the Swedish scientist, traveling in America in 1749, went to Canada from the English colonies by way of Lake Champlain.  There he stopped at the French frontier post, Fort St. Frederic, built on the Pointe de la Couronne, later called “Crown Point” by the English.  It was here he observed black sand on the lake shore, the grains of which were attracted by his magnet and which he recognized to be iron.  He could not then ascertain the origin of this sand, as he states in his journal; “For it was not known here whether there were iron ores in the neighborhood or not.  But I am rather inclined to believe that they may be found in these parts, as they are common in different parts of Canada, and as this sand is found on the shores of almost all the lakes and rivers in Canada.”

It is not known when or how iron deposits were first discovered in the Adirondack region, but the ore at the Cheever Bed, a short distance north of Port Henry, was being worked as early as 1766 for in that year Major Philip Skene’s boats were known to have made many trips from his settlement, Skenesboro (now Whitehall) to fetch ore for his forges at that place.  In 1771 Skene received from Governor Dunmore letters patent for lands which included this deposit.  Benedict Arnold was in command at the Crown Point fort in 1775, and in June of that year he noted in his regimental book that he had sent a boat with Skene’s Negroes to dig ore from the Cheever.  It was made into iron and used in fitting out vessels which later were engaged in the first naval battle in the War for Independence.

Early pioneers in the Adirondack region believed, and found, that iron existed widely distributed in these mountains.  Looking back at that somewhat legendary epoch the story of iron in this region holds much of  romance.   The iron industry forms not only a major phase of local history throughout the nineteenth century, but it is also a chapter of no mean importance in the history of this country’s material growth.  Due credit should be given to its place in the industrial expansion of that period.  The part Crown Point filled in the picture is well worthy of commemoration.

An iron industry could not have been developed in those times with iron alone, — other resources also were necessary.  Here in this region are to be found close together all materials essential for making iron.  Besides the ore there was timber, seemingly an inexhaustible supply of it, with which to make the great quantities of charcoal needed  to fire the forges and furnaces.  There were numerous streams to furnish water for  washing crushed ore in the separating process and were to swing the trip-hammers and to operate other machinery.  Here, too, in some favorably endowed localities there was limestone needed in furnaces to make a flux with the ore in the smelting process.  Sites for forges were first of all determined by the availability of good water power — timber was everywhere abundant close at hand.  The ore could be, and often was hauled a long distance to the forge or furnance. Furnaces usually  were located with reference to some local supply of limestone as well as ore, water not being needed in great quantity or with head for them.  Carting these two bulky, heavy materials in small wagons over rough roads was a handicap to be reckoned with.

In the beginning the products were made for local use largely, as the market for them was limited to those frontier communities that could be reached by the poor roads or by the waters of Lake Champlain.  Later, when there was a water connection, via the Champlain Canal,  between that lake and the Hudson River was made in 1819-20 it became possible to shop the iron directly by water to the larger markets.  Natural resources being available and means of transport to industrial localities at a distance assured, enterprising men were quick to take advantage.  Winslow Watson, the historian of Essex County, New York, tells that soon “the fires of small forges illuminated sequestered spots in all most every section of the county.”  This work, he points out, “exerted a beneficent local influence. They stimulated the industry of remote districts; they created a market for all the products of husbandry; by a demand for wood and coal, they imparted a value to unprofitable forests, and thus enhanced the price of lands, and promoted the cultivation of the earth.  Little hamlets clustered around these sites, and some exhibited the impress of civilization by their varied arts, their schools, and religious movements.”

A water only transportation system limited a greater marketing opportunity when winter temperatures closed down barge traffic for up to six months.  After the Civil War another transportation opportunity became available by the north/south expansion of rail routes, especially after 1870s  along the western shores of Lake Champlain and provided market access year around.   This was the era of America’s great Industrial Age and the vast Adirondack resources, including iron ore, were in demand stimulating the iron industry here.

Sailing Canal Boat

The manufacture of iron products in Essex County appears to have been initiated in 1801 at Willsboro Falls.  The ore used there came mostly from Vermont but some was brought from Canada.  The articles first manufactured were largely anchors.  These varied in weigth from three hundred to fifteen hundred pounds.  They were transported by water to Whitehall, thence carted overland to Fort Edward on the Hudson, where they were again shipped on boats to Troy.  Mill cranks, grist mill machinery and, later, steamboat irons also were made.

In several instances the discovery of iron ore in this region was made under interesting circumstances, as at Crown Point and at the famous Arnold Hill bed in town of Peru, which was discovered in 1806 by a man who, in traveling over this tract saw a piece of the clear blue iron ore which had been uncovered beneath the roots of a pine tree which had been blown over.  He took it along with him to Jay and smelted it in a blacksmith shop, making a small bar of iron of excellent quality.”

The Elba Iron Works were established on the headwaters of the Ausable River about 1809. Owing to the roughness of the country, the distance of the works from market, and inaccessibility by road, this enterprise was abandoned in 1815.  Numerous other forges were being erected at this time in the region that was accessible from the Lake, and after the opening of the Champlain Canal their activity was greatly increased.

The discovery of iron ore in Crown Point was first made in 1818 at what was later known as the Saxe, or Saxe and Floyd bed.  Two years later it was opened, and in 1823 this ore was used in a forge established at a water power site on a stream nearby.  According to Watson, quantities of it were taken to a furnace owned and operated by Jacob Saxe near the mouth of the Salmon River in Clinto